Features / Fiction / Interviews

Literary Excavation: Jeffrey Colvin’s Story of Lost Black Communities

by Andy Shi

After one’s last breath but before oblivion is the margin of the “almost gone,” the state where one continues to exist through the memory of those still alive. To preserve the past is an ethical imperative, a duty to remember the lives of our forbearers, if for no other sake than that of remembrance.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

To remember is the foremost impetus behind Africaville, a story that broaches redemption, heartbreak, the banal evil of racism, and the shortcomings of youth. The multigenerational and cross-continental narrative follows the fictional Sebolt family from the very real Africville (without the ‘a’) neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the descendants of slaves from the Caribbean and American South settled in the 1800s.

Africaville is debut novelist Jeffrey Colvin’s strenuous, 20-year effort to remember and to remind the world of the “lost black communities” sprinkled throughout North America, erased in equal measure through unsympathetic and racist urban planning and the negligence of historians. So it was left to Colvin to conceptualize, research, and write during and after careers in the Marine Corps, as a congressional aide, nonprofit manager, and now an assistant editor at Narrative magazine.

His story begins with Kath Ella Sebolt, a child prodigy whose dream to become a school teacher is nearly derailed when she becomes pregnant after a relationship with Omar, a local boy sent to Africaville after his parents are imprisoned in Mississippi for their political activism. From here Colvin chronicles the Sebolt progeny as they leave Africaville for Montreal, Vermont, and Alabama, but even far from the decaying township of Africaville, Kath Ella’s son, Etienne, and his son, Warner, are pulled back to their familial pasts in both reluctance and enthusiasm. For to remember where one’s ancestors come from, and one’s own community, is not just to preserve their memory but also to remember one’s own identity.

In our conversation, I had the opportunity to talk with Colvin about what inspired Africaville, his writing process, and what remembrance means to him.

Andy Shi: It took twenty years to research and write your novel, and I presume most of that time was spent on the former. You could have spent a lifetime researching the “lost” communities of black North Americans. How did you finally know when enough was enough?

Jeffrey Colvin: While remnants of former black communities exist all over North America, I based Africaville on a black community in a rural Alabama and a community in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The fictional black community of Pathview, Alabama, is based on my experiences growing up in the South.  In the late 1990s, I began to write short stories set in a rural Alabama community like the one where my grandmother raised a family. After I graduated college, I came home to the news that the last houses in this community had been abandoned and torn down. My novel was inspired by stories my grandmother and her former neighbors told about their community. These stories became part of a larger narrative in 2001, the year I read an article in the New York Times about a black community called Africville that once existed on the northern edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I began researching Africville not to gain fodder for a novel, but because I was taken with the story of the village. I read articles, watched historical videos, and read books eager to learn how the village came to be, who the people were who lived in it, and the events that transpired during the protracted fight by the residents to oppose the town’s destruction. I was so taken that I decided that Africville would be the focus of the novel and I began to research Canadian history and the history of black Canadians. By the mid-2000s I had a general idea of the basic narrative so further research was guided by questions that came up as I revised. Some details uncovered in my research made their way into the novel in a specific way, other details became the basis for fictional ideas, and, of course, much was discarded. At about the fifteen-year mark, I made the decision to stop doing research and work with the story as it existed. By then I had been writing short fiction for over a decade, so I felt somewhat comfortable following the story as it developed and believing in the narrative.

AS: When you first conceived Africaville, did you anticipate how long it would take to write it? Looking back now, would you have changed anything about the journey you undertook to finally get here?

JC: In the late 2000s when the disparate strands of Africaville began to coalesce into a coherent narrative, I anticipated having only a few more years ahead of me before I was finished. I was wrong. Addressing the comments I got from trusted readers involved many more years of work. Then there were years of addressing comments from my agent. Other than the unexpected setback fueled by the deaths of two of my sisters and both my parents, I am not sure I would change the journey. I believe working hard on this novel helped me grow as a person, which I believe is important part of growing as a writer.

AS: I think a lot of writers would be put off by the idea of spending twenty years on a single project, regardless of the topic. What about a lengthy incubation period would you say makes it all worth it?

JC: I learned a lot over the years writing this book, both about how to write and about the challenges of incorporating both my personal experiences and research into a narrative. I also learned the value of patience. Sometimes the first ideas are not the best, and with a long writing period I was able to see new and sometimes better ideas develop. A lengthy writing period also allows a writer to try different approaches. This is often a difficult endeavor when writing a book-length work because taking out a subplot or making substantial changes to a major character could have significant ramifications, especially when the book is far along. The long incubation period allowed me to recognize the importance of experimenting with different approaches.

AS: What were some of the unexpected findings you came across in your research, either included in the novel or not?

JC: I did not realize the extent of Caribbean immigration to Canada, not just to locations on the Atlantic seaboard, but also to inland cities like Toronto and Montreal. I also did not know about the blacks from the United States and the Caribbean who had immigrated farther north than Nova Scotia to regions like Cape Breton. Historical facts about black migration to Cape Breton made their way into the novel both as settings for certain events and as places that spawned important characters.

AS: Your novel is rich with ideas about remembrance, including the beautifully phrased motif of the “almost gone,” those who continue to exist after their deaths through others’ memories of them. Do you think the primary duty to remember is as a service to the dead, or to the living, whose identities can become muddled without an understanding of their ancestry?

JC: I believe remembrance is a preoccupation of the living. We find comfort in good memories, wrestle with memories that bring hurt or confusion, and suppress or cast-off memories that are too painful to continue to carry. Memories are also vehicles through which we pass on history, also an important theme in Africaville.

AS: Is to remember one’s ancestors inextricable from remembering the places where they were from? Can a community still exist even if the place where it originated disappears and is forgotten?

JC: Having lived in a small town in the segregated south, I came to recognize a community as being more than a group of people living in a compact or contiguous area. Many small towns in Alabama were surrounded by a host of rural settlements which during the 1950s and 1960s were strongly connected because of Jim Crow laws. In the era of segregated schools, children from disparate settlements were bussed to the same schools. Because of restrictive housing laws and government policies, many families moved freely between the settlements. Residents from disparate communities also regularly visited churches in other settlements.  In this way, community connections were through shared experiences rather than having lived together within a localized village or town.

AS: Africaville is in part a story of redemption as Warner, whom his fellow Alabamans believe to be white, owns up to the black heritage that his father lied about, or “crowed.” Having grown up in Alabama yourself, have your views on crowing changed at all, either since leaving Alabama or over the course of your research?

JC: The idea of passing is often applied to individuals hiding their black ancestry; however, the idea can be applied to the choices we make about how we present ourselves to the world. I believe that many of us have important parts of ourselves which for many reasons we choose to keep hidden from acquaintances, friends, even family members. Fiction is an excellent outlet to explore these elements of human nature. A person moving to a new city or joining a new group of friends might make adjustment to how they present themselves. Some adjustments might be superficial, such as changing their style of dress or their manner of speaking. Others might be more involved such as subtle changes to their personalities. This kind of passing can be thought of as more benign than passing for white, but in writing Africaville, I discovered how even small changes to how one presents themselves to the world can bring anxieties, fears, and discomfort.

AS: If you had another twenty years to work just on this topic (or maybe to limit the scope of the answer, five years), how would you expand the book? Was there anything you reluctantly cut from the final version?

JC: I had been researching and writing for about five years when the novel began to take shape. By then the book had grown to about six hundred pages. I suspected the novel would need to be trimmed but had difficulty doing so. From the feedback I had gotten from readers, I eventually decided that a lengthy subplot and the story of a fourth generation were candidates for expulsion. Over several more years I experimented with different revisions before deciding on the final cuts. It was all very arduous work but made the novel better.

AS: What direction would the eliminated subplot have taken us?

JC: The eliminated subplot would have taken the reader deeper into one of the southern communities that, like Africaville, no longer exists. Ultimately, connections between Africaville in Halifax and these other extinct black communities in the South were achieved through the familial bonds of the Sebolts and the vibrant neighborly institutions that bound the two faraway communities together.

AS: What’s next for you?

JC: I am working on another historical novel.

Bloom Post End

Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.

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